The novel Coronavirus has changed the lives of people around the world. Businesses have come to a standstill, economies have been negatively impacted and people have been forced indoors by lockdowns imposed in most cities around the world. During these trying times, most of the companies working in the technology and creative domains have managed to fare much better than the others by continuing operations from home as most of their employees already had portable computers at work and they started to operate from home as usual.
Recognizing the cracks
While the first few days of working from home pass rather peacefully for most of us, it is after the mid of the first week or in the second week when cracks start appearing in this regimen. For employees, work never seems to end for the day and they feel as if the free time they had at the end of the workday has vanished completely. They no longer seem to have time for their hobbies or recreational activities and seem to be extremely demotivated and rather uninterested or dull all day.
Employers, managers and business owners seem to have similar problems as frustrations rise amongst their subordinates and employees, sometimes leading to slipped deadlines and discord with vendors and customers. Most managers and business owners start attributing this to “inefficiencies” or the “inability of employees to work from home without monitoring” and believe that employees are mostly “wasting time reserved for work” or “being lazy”. This rising frustration slowly leads to furloughs, demotions and in some cases, involuntary exits.
Why do these problems occur?
It is natural behaviour for us to resist change. The COVID-19 pandemic rushed many young companies into a work-from-home situation faster than they had imagined. This was fueled partially because these companies were formed by young technical innovators with very little experience of management in the real world and a lower-than-usual capability to handle crises, unlike their seasoned counterparts.
How do larger companies manage this?
In many developed nations, especially in Western Europe, companies put a lot of focus on understanding human behaviour. Their employees have frequently worked from home to take care of young children and companies have learned to embrace this mode of work. As employees were given guidance, training and time to ease into this process, they gradually began to form a regimen which was guided by an experienced management and a more “humane” approach towards employees.
As an example, large companies in Europe had many female ICT employees who worked from home for extended periods, in some cases even up to a couple of years to ensure that they were able to take care of their children and continue employment at the same time.
How did these companies accomplish this?
This was facilitated by the company vision of ensuring employee success and immaculate planning by managers who studied and understood human behaviour and could predict common problems faced by employees at home. This enabled them to create flexible regimens for employees who were working from home. These regimens were time-tested and ensured that employee morale and productivity was high, reducing incidents of frustration and missed deadlines.
Why do most startups fail in this regard?
Young companies such as technology startups used cash infusions to scale rapidly. They went from a few to hundreds of employees in some cases and employed a learn-as-you-go approach to human resources. They did not put much effort into disaster management and business continuity planning and assumed that a pandemic-like situation and the subsequent lockdown would only exist in science fiction novels and movies. This was exacerbated by the fact that human resource professionals employed by these companies were very young and lacked the experience and the understanding of human behaviour that is needed to manage such situations.
What can startups do to ensure higher productivity levels?
Reduce expectations. Most managers and business owners think that a lockdown situation is the same as an office situation. They do not understand that logistical constraints like childcare, emotional exhaustion, and commonly outsourced services by employees such as cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry and daycare for children must be done by their employees now.
Here are a few things young business owners and managers can consider driving efficiency in these trying times:
1. Accepting reduced efficiency levels
Employees are as new to this situation as you are. As they are coming to terms with the balance that they are trying to achieve, you must also understand these facts and work with them to ensure that they deliver as well as they did during normal workdays.
As long as your employees perform between 80-100% of what they normally do most of the times, you should allow them some slack and let them bump offline for a bit during the workday. With the added responsibility of cooking, cleaning and taking care of children being suddenly thrust upon them, life can get a bit unnerving at times. This accommodation can also ensure that they realize that they have slacked, and end up working 110% for half a day, and dropping efficiency a notch or two for the rest of the day. In the end, you end up with an employee that performs somewhere between 90-100% of their usual potential, which is near-normal.
2. Accommodate employees with sick family members
With no home care available and the highly infectious nature of the pandemic that we are facing, it is only human to allow as much support to employees with sick family members as possible. Give people a break, and if possible, some paid time off. This will enhance employee productivity and even boost it beyond 100% once this crisis is over.
3. Changing expectations of results and output for time
With most employees parenting and doing chores on their own at home, online time or desk time must not be considered important. Managers should allow flexibility in work hours as a young child or a sick family member would not let your employees work from 9-5 as they did from work. Just allowing some extra time during breakfast, lunch and some extra “cuddle time” will go a long way in ensuring happier employees. When employees feel relaxed and happy, they will ensure that their tasks get done on time, automatically.
4. Respecting employee time constraints
Understand that your employees need time to themselves. it is absolutely NOT ok to expect them to be around on-demand or 24/7 just because they are working from home. People need time for their families, hobbies, personal goals, fitness, eating, getting supplies and much more. If you are fortunate enough to have this taken care of, understand that your employees might not be as well off as you. Also, if there are upcoming long weekends or if employees have taken personal time off, respect that and wait until they are “at work” again.
5. Putting ideas into practice
Ensure that your team has an online time that is mutually acceptable. As an example, If an employee usually delivers the first set of tasks by 1 pm, goes for lunch and starts the next set at 2:15, understand that as he now has to cook lunch, eat, and deliver before 1 pm, it might become stressful for them, causing error levels to rise and efficiency to plunge. Instead, make the delivery time flexible to 3 pm if possible, ensuring that the employee has enough time to work, cook and eat lunch. This will reduce employee stress levels as they will alter their schedule to fit into the new, relaxed timings and deliver as per plan.
6. Avoiding common managerial mistakes
The most common managerial mistake during the time of crisis is control. As young managers try to drive and get the same efficiency from employees as before, they end up installing employee tracking software like TimeDoctor, Teramind, Vericlock, Hubstaff, Desktracker or other similar “monitoring” tools. Companies try to get away with this approach by comparing these tools to a security camera. They may be right, but in most cases, it is not so. Most employees detest these tools and would rather waste time trying to cheat it than do something productive. A question that many managers can be asked is that if they spend most of their time going through employee reports, how do they get any task of their own done at all?
Building employee trust is important and it can go a long way in ensuring employee loyalty and better output. If you aim to drive the productivity of your employees to pre-pandemic levels, understand that you will first need to modify your policies to ensure this success and then give them time to adjust to this new regimen. Once you establish good working policies, you will automatically drive employee trust and enhance their productivity. It is as simple as saying, you hired these employees, so you should trust them too. If you do not, why keep them?